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Friends come to ailing bluesman Sam Myers' aid



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DALLAS - The photo shoot is finally over, and not a moment too soon for Sam Myers.

The Dallas bluesman has a notoriously low tolerance for photos and interviews, and since being diagnosed with throat cancer in February, his patience is getting thinner by the day.

Ask him about Friday's benefit concert in his honor, and he doesn't mince words: "I hope I'll still be around by then."

Ask him about the state of today's music and he says, "As far as I'm concerned, most of it sucks."

It's classic Sam Myers, a singer who's lovingly described as "grouchy" on his official Web site.

At age 69, he has a lifetime of stories, but he's usually not in the mood to share them.

"When people start crowding me, asking me a lot of questions, I just up and disappear," he says.

Yet despite his curmudgeonly traits, he's a beloved figure in the blues - not just in Texas, where he plays with Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets, but around the world, where's he has been a cult figure since the '50s.

"I'm a huge fan of Sam Myers, and I wish him a speedy recovery,' says Eric Clapton via e-mail. In 1969, the guitarist and his band mates in Blind Faith recorded Myers' blues noir hit "Sleeping in the Ground."

"Sam's one of the last of the old school blues guys," says singer Delbert McClinton, who'll perform Friday at the Granada Theater during Myers' benefit show.

"He's a real survivor, which means a lot to me: He's out there doing it, night after night after night, and to me, that's the sign of somebody who can't get enough of it."

In typical fashion, Myers is more prosaic about his career.

"For 50 years, I've looked at music the way I look at working at the mattress factory in Mississippi where I used to work - you're just doing a job," he says.

For the last 19 years, his job has been the lead singer and harmonica player with the Dallas-based Rockets. But like a lot of blues legends, he learned his craft in Mississippi.

Born in tiny Laurel, Miss., and raised near Jackson, he's been nearly blind since childhood - the result of cataracts. He learned to play trumpet and drums well enough to get a scholarship at a music school in Chicago in the early '50s, the boom years of electric urban blues.

Living on the Windy City's South Side, he met the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and jammed with "Dust My Broom" hit-maker Elmore James, who soon hired him.

Myers toured and recorded with James in the 1950s and '60s - that's him wailing on the harmonica throughout James' '61 classic, "Look on Yonder Wall."

But he was also busy with his own career. In 1956, he scored a minor hit with "Sleeping in the Ground," a classic and vicious blues tale of love gone bad:

"I would rather see you sleeping in the ground/Than to stay around here, if you're gonna put me down," he sings. A half-century later, Myers doesn't say much about "Sleeping" except that it's not autobiographical.

"Writing songs like that don't have to be something that happened to you. It can just be about life itself and the hardships people go through."

Personal or not, it struck a chord with blues fans, including Clapton and Steve Winwood, who were looking for songs to record with their new British supergroup, Blind Faith.

In mid-1969, they recorded "Sleeping in the Ground" twice at a London studio - the first time as an up-tempo Chicago-style blues and a month later as slower Delta blues.

But neither version wound up on "Blind Faith." And when the band broke up, the recording was forgotten for almost 20 years, until Clapton decided to put it on his "Crossroads" box set.

A version by Robert Cray came out after that, and since then, the tune has turned up on the reissued "Blind Faith," as well as on compilation CDs by Winwood and Clapton.

In theory, that should mean nice royalty checks for Myers, the song's sole writer. But like all too many blues musicians in the 1950s, Myers says he got bilked out of his money. In recent years, he has had a lawyer look into the matter, without much success.

"It's a disgusting thing, really," Myers says. "This is a song I wrote, and I didn't even get a dime for it, and everybody else is making money with it."

If there's a silver lining, he says, it's that people such as Clapton and Cray appreciate his music. "At least somebody's thinking of me," he says.

They weren't the only ones. In 1982, Myers introduced himself to Funderburgh at a show in Mississippi, but no introduction was needed: The Dallas guitar slinger had been performing "Sleeping in the Ground" for years.

The two became friends, hanging out when Funderburgh played in Mississippi. And when original Rockets singer Darrel Nulisch quit in 1986, Myers joined and moved to Dallas.

"It was as easy as falling off a log, since Sam and I both come from the same style of blues," says Funderburgh.

With an authentic Delta bluesman in the band, Anson & the Rockets climbed to the top. Collectively, they've won nine W.C. Handy Awards, the blues equivalent of the Grammys, with Myers winning for best harmonica player (1988) and vocalist (1989).

In person, the two are a study in contrasts: The 69-year-old Myers is tall, quiet and stern; Funderburgh, is short, talkative and funny, with a passing resemblance to the cartoon character Beavis. (It's no coincidence, since "Beavis & Butthead" creator Mike Judge used to play bass in the Rockets.)

Despite the differences, their partnership works well, the guitarist says.

"That's not to say we agree on everything. I can be as stubborn as the horn of a longhorn. But I have a great respect for Sam's opinion, and the older you get, the more you learn there's a whole lot of different ways to skin the cat."

Myers is far more terse: "It's a good friendship, but like a lot of stuff, words can't explain it."

That unspoken bond has seen the pair through rough patches over the last 19 years. At times, well-paying gigs have been few and far between, and unlike bigger-name acts, the five-man Rockets don't travel in cushy tour buses.

For years, they crisscrossed the country in a UPS-style van with 300,000 miles on it. They finally got rid of it and upgraded to a 1953 Greyhound that has since stopped running.

Now, they have more serious things to worry about. Late last year, Myers, a lifelong smoker, came down with what doctors originally thought was bronchitis.

By February, his voice had all but disappeared, and doctors found two polyps on his vocal chords: One turned out to be benign. The other was malignant.

Doctors removed the polyps and gave him seven weeks of daily radiation treatment. During his recovery, he finally quit smoking. "That was the easy part," he says. "I just said I'd quit, and I quit."

His friends quickly volunteered to play Friday's benefit concert, which will pay expenses not covered by Medicare. Aside from Jimmie Vaughan and McClinton, the show features Myers' Dallas friends, Hash Brown and Mike Morgan.

"When the (expletive) hits the fans, you really know who your friends are," says Funderburgh.

But there will be one glaring absence from the marquee: Little Milton, the Mississippi blues legend who died Aug. 4 of a brain aneurysm at 71. Last month, he told Myers he'd play the benefit.

"He was a good friend - I knew him better than I do a lot of the Texas cats," Myers says.

As he recovers, Myers spends most of his days in his one-bedroom, $525-per-month apartment in East Dallas. His eyesight is good enough to watch TV, but he doesn't see well enough to drive, so friends take him to the grocery store or the Dixie House in Lakewood, his favorite restaurant.

Family-wise, he's on his own. His parents live in a nursing home in Mississippi, and he seldom talks to his 44-year-old son, who recently got out of jail and lives in Alabama.

As for marriage, "I've always been able to dodge that bullet," he says with a laugh.

In one sense, his band is his family. Aside from Funderburgh, the Rockets include bassist Eric Mathew Przygocki, drummer Wes Starr and pianist "Gentleman" John Street.

But while the prognosis on the cancer is good, there are no guarantees he'll be able to keep singing with the Rockets.

"The doctors say I've made a lot of progress, but who knows? My voice might not be as clear as it was before," he says between coughing fits.

As a result, the Rockets are in limbo. Unable to work since Myers got sick in December, the band has booked a fall tour hoping their singer will be well enough to perform. If not, they'll have to improvise.

"I love Sammy, and I can't imagine moving on without him, but at the same time, we might have to hire somebody else," Funderburgh says.

His partner doesn't have an answer, either.

"You never know which way it'll go," Myers says. "But whether I'm with the group or not, I say Godspeed to them no matter what happens."

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DETAILS

The Sam Myers benefit concert takes place at 8 p.m. Friday at the Granada Theater, 3524 Greenville Ave., Dallas, Texas. $18-$35. 214-824-9933 or www.granadatheater.com. Performers include Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets, Jimmie Vaughan, Delbert McClinton, Hash Brown and Mike Morgan & the Crawl. Tax-deductible donations to Sam Myers can be made out to Southwest Blues Heritage Foundation Inc. (SWBHF Inc.) and mailed to: P.O. Box 710548, Dallas, TX 75371-0548

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(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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